Walnut Rifle Stocks Past and Present

Like plastic bottles, synthetic stocks are indestructible. That said, wood is durable enough for rifle stocks — and beautiful.

Walnut Rifle Stocks Past and Present

Traditional appeal: A Winchester 70 in walnut. Wood still sells because a deer rifle isn’t just a tool.

I’m told shooters weaned on fiberglass, carbon-fiber and injection-molded polymer rifle stocks can maintain mental balance. But such a sterile youth, without nurture from walnut, surely leaves scars. My generation was spared them. Barely.

After 143 years producing rifles with wood stocks, Remington announced its Nylon 66 autoloader with a Zytel nylon stock. Between 1959 and 1990, more than a million of these 4-pound .22s endured the abuse of adolescents running traplines and exhibition shooters spewing bullets by the carton. With Nylon 66s, Remington salesman, Tom Frye, challenged Ad Topperwein’s eye-popping record on tossed 2.25-inch wooden blocks. During a marathon session in San Antonio in 1907, Ad had wearied several Winchester 1903s firing at 72,500 blocks. He hit 71,491, including a run of 14,500 straight! Undaunted, Frye passed the 43,725 mark with just two misses. He stopped at 100,010, having drilled all but six. The feat was less a tribute to the rifle than to Frye’s stellar marksmanship. But Remington capitalized on it, following in 1963 with the Zytel-stocked XP-100 single-shot pistol in .221 Fireball. Polymers had a toe-hold.

With due respect for subsequent synthetic stocks, I think walnut more interesting.

Walnut From Around the World

Time has clouded our view of the 13th century, when Marco Polo allegedly brought walnuts from their native Persia to Italy. Nuts and seedlings found their way north to Continental Europe and England. Though Juglans regia, or “royal walnut,” now varies in grain structure and color by region, it carries that same scientific name world-wide. Common names denote locations, not genetic distinctions. English and French walnut are both Juglans regia. Many migrations later, across the ocean, it became “California English.”  Most California English grown from nuts has a tawny background with black streaks, and less marble cake figure than England’s walnut. Classic French is commonly red or orange with black highlights. Circassian walnut (after a region in the northwest Caucasus, on the Black sea) typically has a dark, smoky character.

American or black walnut, Juglans nigra, has served deer hunters Stateside since German gunmakers in Pennsylvania built the first “Kentucky” rifles. The predominant color is a warm brown, with black veins. Claro walnut, Juglans hindsii, was discovered around 1840 in California. Reddish and relatively open-grained, Claro was crossed with English to produce ornamental Bastogne walnut. Nuts from these shade trees are infertile, but Bastogne grows fast. Stock makers like its tight grain, which brooks recoil well and checkers more cleanly than Claro. Fetching color and figure have buoyed demand for, and the price of, Bastogne. As with Juglans regia, the choicest Bastogne comes from trees at least 150 years old.

Making the Cut

Any kind of walnut can be plain or richly patterned, depending on the tree’s origin and age, also how it’s cut. Quarter-sawn walnut shows tight color bands, as the saw runs across growth rings. A plane-sawn blank has wider bands because the saw runs tangent to growth rings. Either cut can yield a sturdy, handsome rifle stock; but quarter-sawn walnut is the traditional favorite.

In my youth, a semi-inletted stock blank of figured American walnut could be had for $25. I paid $7.50 for a plain blank. After whittling on it over a winter, I installed it on a battle-worn SMLE. My first deer rifle! Since those days of 15-cent ice cream cones, prices for walnut have tracked dwindling supplies. Now you can find raw slabs of regia tagged at $1,000. Cheaper woods like birch and beech have replaced walnut on entry-level rifles. So have laminates. Essentially plywood, a laminated stock can be attractive. Even more appealing to some shooters: Stocks with walnut slabs that from the side hide a laminated core. Laminating wood adds strength and stability.

Grain on quarter-sawn walnut should run parallel with the grip. It does on this Weatherby Mark V.
Grain on quarter-sawn walnut should run parallel with the grip. It does on this Weatherby Mark V.

Making a Fine Walnut Stock

Before founding Dakota Arms, the late Don Allen had earned an enviable reputation as a stock maker. His career as a commercial pilot took him all over the world, where he fed a passion for beautiful wood. Decades ago, Don lamented that walnut was becoming alarmingly scarce. High-grade regia was already hard to find in England and France. “Fine wood comes from Turkey and Morocco,” he told me, “but even there, walnut is being cut at an unsustainable rate. Some trees felled in Turkey today may have stood for 400 years!” That is, we’re inletting wood from trees predating the Declaration of Independence. While pulp plantations can cycle in little more than a decade, top-end walnut is the product of centuries.

Walnut growers in France have steamed logs before cutting them into slabs (flitches). Steaming killed insects and colored the sap, turning it from white to amber.

Don Allen knew a great deal about walnut and how to bring out its best in rifle stocks. “Walnut must be dried before you attack it with tools,” he said. “Immediately after a blank is cut, free water starts to escape. It’s like a soaked sponge dripping. If water leaves too fast, the wood can crack and check. Its surface can even crust, inhibiting further release of bound water.” A kiln throttles the drying process. But you don’t need a special environment to bring wood gently to a “safe” moisture content. A cool, shaded place will do.

“After moisture content stabilizes at 20 percent or so,” Don continued, “the blank can be air- or kiln-dried without damage. Just avoid extremes of temperature and humidity, and periodically weigh the blank. When weight stabilizes, it is ready to work. Some stock makers turn the blank to rough profile at this point, then let it dry 6 more months before inletting.”

Layout is the first step in stock-making. Viewed from the side, the grain of a quarter-sawn blank should run parallel with the grip, to give it maximum strength. From above, grain should parallel the bore. While dense wood with tiny pores is preferable in all stocks, straight-grained wood perfectly laid out can be stronger and more stable than figured walnut of higher density but squirrely grain. Figure in the butt is benign; not so crotches and knots in grip and forend.

Glass bedding strengthens wood but can’t eliminate warpage. I favor glass or epoxy in the recoil lug mortise, to prevent splitting and afford the lug firm, unchanging contact with the stock. A small patch of glass under the tang makes sense, too. Deck: Like plastic bottles, synthetic stocks are indestructible. Wood is durable enough — and beautiful.

This Savage 11 Lightweight Hunter has handsome, well-finished walnut  and “fill-in” checkered panels.
This Savage 11 Lightweight Hunter has handsome, well-finished walnut and “fill-in” checkered panels.

Yes, glass is commonly used to hide shoddy inletting, but it can also complement superior work, to protect the stock from the brutal recoil of some magnums.

Checkering helps you grip the stock and dresses it up. Once all checkering was hand-cut. As hand work of all types added increasingly to production costs, machine-pressed panels appeared. On modestly priced rifles of the 1960s, these impressions, with “diamonds” in reverse, looked as if hammered in by a meat tenderizer. Machine-cut checkering followed, and has since improved.

Hand checkering, still the mark of a fine custom rifle, can be as fine as 32 lines per inch (lpi), if the wood is hard and uniform enough. Such diamonds appear mostly inside skeleton grip caps and butt-plates. Grip and forend panels typically wear 20- to 22-lpi checkering — useful on deer rifles. Some is as course as 18. I prefer 24-lpi checkering, but it’s rare on production-class rifles now.

Most checkering panels are variations of fleur-de-lis and point patterns. The basic fleur-de-lis is easiest because it’s a fill-in job. A point pattern incorporates the border. If you err inside a fill, the border will still be OK, and only close inspection will show the flaw. An off-kilter line in a point pattern dooms the panel. Of course, fine ribbons in a fleur pattern are for experts. Stock maker Gary Goudy and others of his exceptional talent cut ribbons as slender as fly line, uniform and unbroken.

Caring for Walnut Rifle Stocks

Hard stock finishes appeared after the Second World War. They better seal the wood than do most oil finishes, and are easier to apply. I prefer the glow of oil finishes. Commercial products that deliver the look of hand-rubbed linseed oil spare you time and effort. Try this method: Dry-sand the wood to scratch-free perfection, wet-sand with 400-grit paper to “raise the whiskers.” Sand dry. Apply a base coat of spar varnish or rub in oil (commercial finish or boiled linseed oil) until it’s hot under your hand. Wipe off the excess with a clean rag and leave the stock in a warm, dry place. When the stock is really dry, sand with 600-grit, then apply more oil. Multiple applications become very thin films. The best finish results from many coats, rubbed well and allowed to dry thoroughly. It’s not a weekend job. Polish out imperfections with a slurry of rottenstone and oil, wiping off excess.

Before applying any finish, tape over checkering to keep it from gumming with oil. As a last step, remove the tape and brush oil into the checkering with a toothbrush. Let dry. Repeat. You’re done.

Boiled linseed oil can be used with stain, but I prefer results from oil alone. Water-repellent, this finish is not waterproof. It is, however, easy to repair. Light scratches can be rubbed away with an oiled cloth. Dings can be steamed out with a flat-iron over a wet cloth, whiskers taken off with the rottenstone slurry. Hand-rubbed oil completes the repair.

CZ 557 American with a beautiful and functional walnut stock.
CZ 557 American with a beautiful and functional walnut stock.

Keeping Deer Rifles Real

Synthetic-stocked models now dominate most catalog lists of bolt-action rifles. But the warmth and character of real wood is still yours on several that excel for deer hunting. CZ’s new 557 American (also left-hand) has a handsome, well-proportioned walnut stock (photo above). The modestly priced Mossberg Patriot is well stocked in walnut. Ditto Ruger’s Hawkeye Standard and Winchester’s M70 Featherweight and Standard. Remington offers walnut on its 700 BDL and CDL rifles, also the Model Seven CDL. Savage’s 110 series includes 11/111 Lady Hunter and Lightweight Hunter rifles in walnut. Kimber installs French walnut on Classic Select Grade sporters, “AAA-grade” on its Super America. You can expect fine Claro on Weatherby’s Mark V, but there are also four Vanguard rifles in walnut.

Sidebar: Where Wood Still Rules

 “I didn’t plan this,” Randy Boyd told me long ago. “You might say the business took me by the collar.” Randy grew up in Geddes South Dakota, 70 miles from the Boyds operation outside Mitchell. “I started by swapping an old Plymouth for two Mausers, which I refurbished and sold back for a profit.” His father’s heart attack put Randy in charge of the family shop.

In 1986, Randy and his new bride, Sheila, agreed to supply 100 stocks a week for Chipmunk Rifles. “We bought three high-volume duplicators and worked overtime learning to use them.” CNC machines followed. In 1997, Boyds ramped up production to fill the void left by the closure of the Reinhard Fajen and E.C. Bishop shops. Now the biggest stock supplier in the U.S., Boyds boasts a 50,000-square-foot plant.

Boyds of Mitchell, South Dakota, is America’s biggest hardwood stock supplier with broad selection, fine quality and modest prices.
Boyds of Mitchell, South Dakota, is America’s biggest hardwood stock supplier with broad selection, fine quality and modest prices.

Years ago Randy said, “We emphasize selection, quality, delivery and price. Can’t forget price.” Still a presence, he has handed that tradition and daily operations to Dustin Knutson and an experienced team.

Name your rifle and Boyds almost surely has a stock to fit. A long list of styles and laminate colors includes the new, adjustable At-One.

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